Home Arts The Met’s Costume Institute pays tribute to the enigmatic designer Karl Lagerfeld

The Met’s Costume Institute pays tribute to the enigmatic designer Karl Lagerfeld

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Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld was perhaps his greatest creation. Born in Hamburg in 1933, he made his way to Paris in the 1950s to embark on an unprecedented career in haute couture that lasted until his death in 2019. A die-hard self-mythologist and prevaricator – who never managed to confirm key details about his German origins – he was the creative force behind four fashion houses, including Chanel. Now, just a few years after his death, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will cover highlights of that career.

Rather than attack the man behind the myth, Karl Lagerfeld: a beauty line considers the designer’s process. The show’s title and organization refer to William Hogarth’s 18th century treatise beauty analysis, which proposes a theory of aesthetics derived from an s-shaped line. The Met show will divide Lagerfeld’s more than six decades of fashion design into modernist minimalist straight lines and romantic historicist serpentines.

Karl Lagerfeld at work Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Annie Leibovitz/Vogue/Trunk Archive

Abandoning chronology in favor of what Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s curator, considers an essayist approach, the exhibition will focus on Lagerfeld’s “works rather than words”. It will also elevate Lagerfeld’s remarkable sketches, which were key to his professional life, to the rank of applied art. Something between cryptic office memos, intended for his indispensable chief seamstresses, and apparent flights of fancy, these sketches, often in their original form, will be exhibited alongside the garments they favored.

For a 2005/06 Chanel collection, Lagerfeld designed a fantastic wedding dress covered in silk and feather camellias. The reproduced sketch, with odd notations and a model with spiky hair, looks like a dreamlike version of the real thing.

From the mid-1960s, Lagerfeld left his mark on Chloé. In an apparent mix of straight and serpentine lines, he designed a silk crepe dress for the fashion house’s 1973 spring/summer collection. The dress featured austere triangles on the bodice and sinuous commedia dell’arte figures on the skirt; the analytical sketch and a version of the dress will be exhibited together.

A 1973 Rachmaninoff dress designed by Lagerfeld for Chloé, featuring commedia dell’arte characters
Photo © Julia Hetta, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bolton’s detective work led him to find Lagerfeld’s inspiration for the bodice in fashion designer Jeanne Lanvin’s classic bathroom floor tiles. This legendary Parisian room from the 1920s, now in the collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs de Paris, is included in the catalog, along with other citations from Lagerfeld’s eclectic visual sources.

Although not focusing too much on his biography, the exhibition will include video footage of the designer. In one instance, Lagerfeld can be seen laughing, while in another he is busy drawing an image of none other than himself.

Karl Lagerfeld: a beauty lineMetropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 5-July 16

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